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Part IV: Snakes, potatoes and bandhs

GWC Associate Conservation Scientist Gautam S. Surya has been in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Himalayas conducting a survey of birds since May 25 to better understand the distributions of bird species here. Arunachal Pradesh has the second-highest terrestrial biodiversity on the planet, making it a bona fide biodiversity hotspot. With poetry, humor and intellect, Surya is capturing his adventures in a series of blog posts and photos. Follow along!

If you’re interested in supporting Suyra’s work and conservation in Arunachal Pradesh, please consider making a donation through our Wild World Indiegogo campaign. Our goal is to raise $3,500 and any size donation will make a big difference!

Musings on Indian food (15 July 2015)

When surveying in the Mishmi Hills, I generally divide the 50-odd kilometers between Roing and Mayodia pass into two sections. Almost at the exact center is the little hamlet of Tiwarigaon, with about 10 families. Most days consist of visiting half of a set of points from one section, eating lunch at Tiwarigaon, and then heading back the way I came to complete the other half. This year, I’m starting from the top. The road from Roing to Mayodia (and beyond), while generally decent, crosses a normally dry river, the Devpani, on the outskirts of Roing—narrow but deep. For reasons best known to themselves, while the GREF (the equivalent of the American Army Corps of Engineers) have managed to build a well-maintained road but neglected to accomplish the far simpler task of putting a bridge across the Devpani. As a result, when it fills up during the monsoon, it cuts off the population of the entire Dibang Valley drainage, while the GREF scramble around with bulldozers in the streambed trying to stem the flow of the river with mud and create a motorable path. Inevitably, they spend the day almost-but-not-quite accomplishing this, only for rain during the night to wash it all away. Given that the rains have arrived in earnest, I decided to cross the Devpani while that was possible—I figured that if I had to be stranded, I’d rather it be on the side with the birds. As a precaution, though, we carried about 25 pounds of rice with us, as well as dal, instant noodles, tea, oil, candles, and 10 pounds of mostly root vegetables. We were able to buy this for about $15. Working in India can be blessedly cheap for the underfunded conservation biologist.

Our surveys were rather successful (more on that to follow), but our customary lunch at Tiwarigaon got me to thinking. As usual, the meal consisted of boiled rice; boiled dal; and some sautéed potatoes, with raw onions on the side. It is relatively nourishing and filling food, served in huge quantities, although I do occasionally daydream about a nice marbled steak. Additionally, it hasn’t quite occurred to a lot of people in India that potatoes aren’t a very nutritious vegetable in terms of vitamins and minerals, and are rather redundant next to a heaping plateful of rice. Or maybe it has occurred to them, but the relative cheapness and non-perishable nature of potatoes makes them the best option for impoverished communities. And that, in turn, led to the following train of thought.

The meal, in its essentials, was not something very different from what I might cook myself at home, albeit with a different choice of vegetable. However, there were stark differences. The rice was short-grained, coarse, and rather broken; I usually use the fragrant, long-grained Basmati. The dal, too, was rather coarse, and was plainly prepared with salt and turmeric. It had none of the things I would normally add as standard—tomatoes, onion, garlic, ginger, chilis, cumin—and those are just the basics! The vegetable curry again lacked the components of a standard curry I might cook for dinner: coriander, cumin, ginger, garlic, mustard seeds, garam masala, and the list goes on. In other words, to most outsiders, the meal I was served would appear to be a poor imitation for Indian food.

And yet. It is equally undeniable that the meal I was served in Tiwarigaon was far more characteristic of the food that is eaten by most Indians than are the meals that I prepare. It is not a matter of quantity, although in a country where more than 21 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, spices are a luxury. What outsiders think of as recognizably Indian food is in fact quite unrepresentative of the food consumed throughout India. Instead, it is representative of a middle-class aesthetic, except that in a country as impoverished as India, what we would normally think of as middle-class—blue-collar professionals are actually poor— and the aesthetic is coming from the relatively small proportion of white-collar professionals. It’s a salutary lesson to understand that the food that I, and the rest of the world, consider to be Indian would be unrecognizable to many actual Indians.

I ate the meal, smiled and thanked the lady who prepared it (another ‘Didi’ for the list), and went on with my work. The food did its job, keeping me healthy and on my feet. Perhaps Indian food isn’t a specific cuisine, a set of spices and flavors. Perhaps it’s what Indians cook and eat as they go about their lives.

A rare glimpse of the rare and magnificent Blyth’s Tragopan, Mishmi Hills.

First records, last year and this (19 June 2015)

I am an unabashed neophile. I think most natural historians are, and that this is what helps to drive them. I like new things – not possessions, but experiences and observations. As such, the idea of finding the first of something appeals to me, as it isn’t then just new for me, but also in a larger sense.

One of the best parts of working in Arunachal Pradesh is the opportunities it offers for the neophile. There is so much that we don’t know about the place that finding something new is often just a matter of turning up. I’m not a herpetologist by any means, but I generally tend to catch any snakes, frogs and lizards that I find, photograph them, and get them identified by people who are herpetologists. There have been several times where things I caught right on the path could not be conclusively identified. To clarify, these were generally things that had already been caught by herpetologists who were working on classifying them. It’s still quite an experience to come across a snake casually, pick it up, and find out that it is currently outside the realm of our Linnean classification.

It’s quite a bit harder to find a new bird species, but range extensions on the other hand are not uncommon. And again, the remoteness of the region means that getting the first documentation of a range extension isn’t necessarily something that requires phenomenal skills—it’s often just spending the time in the field.

Last year, for example, I managed to get four (what appear to be) first breeding records for the state of Arunachal Pradesh, or the region I was working in specifically. In West Kameng district, just below the town of Bomdila, my field assistant Phurpa and I heard an unfamiliar call. When we tracked it down, skulking in the bushes, it turned out to be an Indian Blue Robin at the eastern edge of its range. We later heard two or three others in various spots, indicating that they may breed in the area. Close by, near the village of Salari, a nondescript little bird turned out to be a Brown-breasted Flycatcher, thought to breed in India only south of the Brahmaputra River. Then, in the Mishmi Hills, an odd song turned out to be a Hill Blue Flycatcher, the first confirmed breeding record in the state. Even more startlingly, a similar but slightly different song, when tracked down, was found to emanate from a similar but slightly different bird, the Large Blue Flycatcher. This was the first breeding record for the species from the Mishmi Hills.

This year, we’ve already turned up a nice one. The species formerly known as Golden-spectacled Warbler was recently split into several species, three of which occur in India; one of these, Whistler’s Warbler, is quite common throughout Arunachal Pradesh above about 7,500 feet. The other two, however, have not been recorded during the breeding season, if ever, in the state. I heard what seemed to be an odd Whistler’s singing and was able to coax it out for some photos, and my field assistant Binanda was able to record its song. The photos and recording seem to conclusively indicate that the bird is one of the other species in this little complex, but the precise identification is complex and might have to wait until I leave Arunachal Pradesh. Still, it’s nice to know that whatever it is, it’s a first record.


A large Green Rat Snake Surya caught in Mishmi Hills. The snake wasn’t quite friendly.

Assorted incidents from the Mishmi Hills (21 June 2015)

Today was my last day in the Mishmi Hills. It has been a fantastic experience. There are lots of things to relate, and so I figured I’d combine them all into one post.

1) Binanda and I were able to record the Mishmi Wren-babbler on the north side of Mayodia pass, only the second record there (the first was also Binanda, with a tourist) and the first summer record. This is a major relief, as it seems to indicate that the bird isn’t quite as rare as we might have feared. No sign of the Liocichla, but we did record a couple of other threatened species: Ward’s Trogon, Manipur Wedge-billed Babbler and some amazing looks at Blyth’s Tragopan.

A side story: these were the first Tragopans I’d seen since the memorable Temminck’s in 2013. My first Blyth’s was also that year, and also spectacular. My very first morning in Bompu Camp, inside Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, I was too excited to sleep and left early to go birding. At 3:59 a.m. precisely, right outside the camp, I looked down off the path into a bamboo-covered ravine and a male Blyth’s Tragopan was staring up at me, some 50 feet below. We both froze for 30 seconds, and then I tried to get my camera lose, and it disappeared immediately. It was the very first bird I saw in Eaglenest, and would also be my very first data point. I hadn’t seen another since.

2) We were also able to record the presence of a singing warbler at several spots. While said warbler is currently unidentified, my photos and Binanda’s recordings of its song indicate that it is one of two species, either of which would be a first summer record for Arunachal Pradesh.

3) Last year, Binanda and I found both Hill and Large Blue Flycatcher, two species that were only recently split from each other and neither of which was known to breed in the Mishmi Hills. We were able to find them again this year, getting definitive photographs and recordings of their song. What is especially interesting is that while sympatric, they appear to have different habitat preferences. Hill Blue is found at low elevations in bamboo thickets, Large Blue found slightly higher in dense undergrowth.

4) I love reptiles, and it’s always a big deal for me to get my first snake of the season. This year, there were a few near misses—a medium-sized dark snake that crossed the road and stopped with its tail sticking out that I could have caught, except that I was worried about it being a cobra and couldn’t see the head or body; another snake that crossed and got away; and three roadkill, a keelback, a rat snake, and a false cobra. I finally got my hands on my first live one for the season, a big, gorgeous Green Rat Snake. I should perhaps say that it got its teeth on my hand instead—it wasn’t thrilled and let me know that in no uncertain terms! I later caught what appeared to be a Himalayan Keelback, a first for me, but I haven’t precisely identified it yet—a lovely little fellow with a bright yellow neck.

5) I spent several hours this morning clumping around in very sticky mud trying to see if there were any birds of interest in a nearby grassland that is known to harbor Bengal Florican, a bird that is Critically Endangered. Alas, we failed to find either the Florican, or any of the other handful of threatened grassland species that might occur here. We emerged with what seemed like a third of the topsoil of the district attached to us. It was worth the effort, though, and hopefully we’ll find this species at another grassland site I plan to visit in July.

6) In the category of logistical hassles comes this doozy. The plan from here is to cross back into Lohit district, and do some surveys of the higher-altitude hills above Tezu, seeking Liocichlas and Wren-babblers. However, as the direct road from Roing to Tezu is impassable during the monsoon, we need to go through the neighbouring state of Assam, a three-hour detour. Except that it is currently quite a longer detour, as the part of Assam I need to get across is currently on strike (or bandh, closing, as it is known here), and protestors have blocked the main roads. We have been informed that this bandh is scheduled to end by this evening, but in Assam, bandhs have a reputation for going on for much longer than they were initially supposed to. Why the bandh has been called seems unclear, although consensus appears to be that it is a protest against bad road conditions and the fact that they have not been repaired. Preventing people from using said roads by force may not seem like the most intuitive solution to that issue, but it is one frequently utilized in Assam. This is not the first year that I’ve had my work disrupted by bandhs; last year, I cut short my season by two days because of a planned bandh on my scheduled date of departure. It isn’t unknown for statewide bandhs to force flight cancellations and/or prevent people from reaching the airport.

If the bandh is actually called off by tomorrow, then we’ll head out to Tezu, and thence to Hayuliang, in the morning. We’ll spend a few days there, and then possibly head upriver to Walong, although we have received conflicting information about the state of that road.

I’ve grown rather fond of the Mishmi Hills. While the town of Roing is not nearly as nice as Tenga (being in the plains, it is hot, filthy and crowded), I stay in a little camp run by a gentleman by the name of Jibi Pulu, on the outskirts of the town. Pulu Sir, as I refer to him, is a conservation-oriented person with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the geography and wildlife of the region. Many researchers patronize his camp, giving it the feel of a field station. As such, it’s possible to have some lovely conversations over his excellent rice beer. I had one such with another graduate student, Sahil Nijhawan, who works on the relationship between the indigenous Mishmi people and their wildlife, and the conservation implications of that. I hope be able to return here again, because Pulu Sir is an amazing person and I have much to learn from him if I do want to accomplish anything conservation-related here. Sahil also has some brilliant insights into conservation. While I focus on the biological side of things—surveys, understanding species’ status and distribution, reserve placement and design—it is important to remember that without being able to understand and work with the culture that inhabits a place, no conservation effort will succeed. Hopefully, his work will give us all some of the tools we need to allow us to do just that, and hopefully my work will as well.

Link to other parts of this series:

Part I: The Magic of Mandala

Part II: Renewal in the mountains

Part III: In search of the Mishmi Wren-babbler

Part V: Realities of the field

Part VI: Landslides and jugaad

Part VII: Magic of the field

About the Author

Gautam Surya

Gautam Surya

Gautam S. Surya was born in the United States and grew up in India, before returning to the United States for college. He completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and biology at Tufts University in 2011, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in the Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour Department at the University of Texas. His major interest is birds; he has worked for three field seasons in Northeast India, attempting to catalogue and map the avian biodiversity there, and hopes to do so for many more years to come.